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Private company offers help with contact tracing, nursing home vaccinations start next week

Tom Magnarelli
WRVO Public Media
COVID-19 vaccinations began at Upstate University Hospital, this week.

The private sector is helping Onondaga County beef up its contact tracing efforts.

Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon said an unnamed company has offered its employees to help the county health department follow up on COVID-19 case investigations. The department has been swamped in recent weeks because of a surge of cases following the Thanksgiving holiday. McMahon said it will help.

"They’re offering a dozen employees who will take the Johns Hopkins course,” McMahon said. “They’ll pay them while they do it and they’ll help our teams.”

The county has already pushed at least 90 employees over to the health department to start the COVID investigations, which are very time consuming. The county is also adding furloughed employees and more seasonal type employees to help. McMahon hopes the extra hands can lead to a 24-hour turn time, as far as the county contacting COVID positive individuals. He also said if that happens, the county could take on the entire contact tracing job itself.

"We were doing contact tracing early on,” McMahon said. “The state system got up and running and got very good. Now they’re getting behind with the increased loads, where if we feel we can get a better outcome if we use our own people for contact tracing, we’ll just do it all internally until the state gets caught back up again.”

McMahon said if other corporate partners want to help with the contract tracing effort, they would be welcomed. Quick contact tracing is key to corralling the virus, because COVID positive individuals and their contacts can quarantine.

Vaccinations in nursing homes in central New York begin next week, according to McMahon. He said each nursing home will partner with a pharmacy, which will come in and administer the vaccines.

“This is a race in these buildings to get these people the vaccine, because the virus is preying on these buildings,” McMahon said. “We want to see it done as quickly as possible, and in our calls, have pushed that to the administrations of these facilities. If your partners say they’re busy, keep pushing.”

Right now, almost a third of COVID patients in local hospitals are from nursing homes. The virus has been particularly deadly to nursing home residents.

The county has been testing staff and residents at assisted living facilities in search of asymptomatic COVID cases. McMahon said it turned up a big cluster at one local facility.

"We are really, really happy we were there that day,” McMahon said. “Now, we are working with treatments with these residents, connecting their medical team with the hospitals together, so you prevent 27 hospitalizations.”

The county will continue testing residents in more assisted living facilities. So far, the positivity rate in these assisted living facilities is 14%.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.